Schools: the great expulsion debate

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Bad behaviour in the classroom – particularly in secondary schools – is a big problem. The government’s first national survey into pupil behaviour, published this year, revealed that 40 per cent of pupils ‘feel unsafe each week because of poor behaviour’. Teachers, fed up with playing policemen, are clearly feeling the strain – 40,000 (almost nine per cent of the workforce) left state schools in 2021-22 before retirement. And while knife arches and bag searches have been commonplace for a while in some schools, tensions seem to have escalated. Earlier this year, armed officers were called to Tewkesbury Academy in Gloucestershire after a pupil stabbed a teacher.

How should teachers handle unruly kids? In the last school term of 2022, 183,817 pupils were suspended from schools in England. Some schools have adopted a hold-no-prisoners approach to discipline, including silent corridors, zero-tolerance of school uniform infractions and sanctions for turning up to class without pen or paper. This has been deployed with most notable effect at Michaela Community School in London.

Supporters of this approach argue that without such measures, classrooms become petty fiefdoms of the worst behaved. But not everyone is a fan – Great Yarmouth Academy made headlines after parents mounted a social-media campaign accusing its disciplinary procedures of harming their children. Critics argue that a disciplinarian approach turns schools into prisons, with disadvantaged children suffering as a result. One morally tricky issue is that schools seem to be suspending and excluding many children with special educational needs (SENs). SENs are over four times more likely to get a fixed-term exclusion than other children. Some parents of SEN kids claim that for all the rhetoric of ‘inclusion and access’, schools not only don’t provide adequate support and resources to aid their child’s learning but actively exclude and discriminate against them. Do these parents have a point?

What are teachers to do when some pupils with very challenging conditions including autism, ADHD and a spectrum of other special educational needs engage in behaviours and actions that disrupt the learning of others – and, at times, can be abusive and even violent? Is it legitimate to argue mainstream schools are not for them, with special and specialist schools more able to cater for their needs?

Naughty kids have always pushed the boundaries, so what’s behind the exponential rise in bad behaviour and expulsions? Are higher SEN exclusion rates discriminatory, or necessitated by a bottom line expectation of minimum behaviour standards in mainstream schools? And while disciplinarian schools often boast better results, has this gone too far, stymying teachers’ ability to form informal relationships with their students – and sucking the fun and friendliness out of schooling?

Dave Clements
writer; school governor; public servant

Michael Merrick
director of schools, Diocese of Lancaster; former teacher; education and social commentator

Stella O’Malley
psychotherapist; director, Genspect; author, What Your Teen is Trying to Tell You

Dr Tony Sewell CBE
chair, Generating Genius; chairman, The Sewell Report; former chair, Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission

Kevin Rooney
history and politics teacher; editor,; convenor, AoI Education Forum; co-author, The Blood Stained Poppy